Shanghai’s Naughtiest Neighborhood

Illustration by Jesse Lenz; Source: China Photos-Getty (ferrari), Ilya Terentyev-Getty (shopper), Eightfish-Getty (skyline)

Ambitious and energetic, Shanghai more than merits the nickname Shang Kong. But the mainland city is co-opting more than just the colonial hub’s commercial savvy. Businessmen here are aping their Cantonese counterparts by keeping a bevy of on-demand girlfriends and paying their bills in exchange for their love and loyalty. Welcome to Shanghai’s newest neighborhood: Mistressville.

These girlfriends—known as ernai, or “little second wives”—were an imperial-era tradition outlawed by the communists; in British-held Hong Kong, the practice persisted. Today, though still technically illegal, “the expression is as common as hello, and everybody in China knows what ernai means,” explains Foreign Babes in Beijing author Rachel DeWoskin. In her research for her screenplay about this phenomenon, American Concubine, she unearthed countless contracts between mistress and master. “One of the main rules I always found was this: the ernai was not to get fat, and the master was to provide name-brand clothing and accessories, no fakes.” There was one other telling detail. “When you turn 30, you’re likely to get dumped.”

In less cosmopolitan cities, such women are installed in ernai cun, or mistress villages—concrete jungles dotted with karaoke clubs and beauty parlors conveniently close to the airport for commuting entrepreneurs. But in Shanghai they have commandeered a chunk of the former French Concession, the toniest part of downtown. “They travel in groups, often with matching accessories, Gucci purses with lap dogs in them,” DeWoskin says. Confides another longtime expat, “They’ve all gotten their eyes ‘opened’—surgery is an absolute requirement, their boobs are done, and they have an impeccable manicure-pedicure.”

Shanghai’s chic ernai prefer edgy Alexander Wang to mumsy Chanel; each will also demand a sports car as the ultimate accessory. No wonder 20 percent of Ferrari owners in China are women, compared with just 5 percent worldwide. Twenty years ago 85 percent of Ferraris sold were sprayed the signature rosso corsa—the ernai have helped drive that number down to just 45 percent, opting instead for white or pink. Huaxia Bank even targeted the lifestyle with its Pretty Girl credit card. And one ernai became an unlikely feminist heroine when she took her lovers’ spat public by listing gifts from her married boyfriend—cars, handbags, even an apartment—on an online auction site.

The freshest crop of on-call girls have seen the colonial-era buildings of the French Concession converted to cater to their needs. These ladies who lunch shop in boutiques like Jade en Plus and nibble on treats at restaurants in the 195 Anfu Lu complex. Doubtless they discuss an old Chinese proverb, now more relevant than ever. Men only go bad once they get rich, it warns, but women only get rich once they go bad—or move to Mistressville.